Penn State will tip off its first NCAA Tournament game since 2011 on Thursday, facing a Texas A&M team most thought was severely underseeded. The Aggies are coming off a second-place finish in the SEC, after going 15-3 in conference play. On the other hand, you have a Nittany Lions squad that fought tooth and nail at season’s end to be included in the field. And, while some may think Penn State’s Big Ten Tournament run deserved a higher seed, it’s understandable to see them where they are today.
While A&M finished the season strong, they did have some head-scratching losses in the non-conference slate, namely Wofford, Murray State, Colorado, none of which are tournament teams. The losses to Boise State and Memphis are forgivable, of course, as both of those teams are in the tournament field.
The Aggies play a style of basketball in direct opposition to that of Penn State’s. Texas A&M will pound the ball inside, go for any and all offensive rebounds, and turn you over. They won’t light the nets from outside, as their best three-point shooter, Wade Taylor, is 36.8 percent from beyond the arc. The Lions, of course, are in direct contrast to that of A&M. Penn State will shoot the three, will get offensive rebounds if it must (but will crash the boards on the defensive end), and is one of the best teams in the country at protecting the basketball.
Scouting the Opposition
The aforementioned Taylor’s 36.8% shooting from three would be sixth best for the Lions, as Jalen Pickett, Andrew Funk, Seth Lundy, Cam Wynter, and Myles Dread all shoot at or above that mark. Julius Marble, formerly of Michigan State, is A&M’s presence inside. At 6-foot-9, he is the tallest member of a team that likes to play in the paint. This should be a breath of fresh air for the Lions, who had to deal with standout big man after standout big man in the Big Ten, many of which stood at 6-foot-10 or taller.
The Aggies’ bread and butter, of course, is driving the ball to the basket and getting fouls. Both Taylor and Marble, along with Tyrece Radford are experts at getting to the line, with 5.9, 4.8, and 5.2 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, respectively. The Lions will have their work cut out for them trying to keep the trio from living at the free throw line.
What to Watch For
Defending without fouling - The Nittany Lions have done of much better job of not fouling as much as they had earlier in the season. This needs to continue against Texas A&M, a team that relies on the foul line to complement its scoring.
Three point shooting - This should go without saying, but the best way to neutralize a team like A&M is to force them to play from behind. Make enough threes early enough and set the tone for the game.
Soak in, but don’t be overwhelmed, by the moment - For all but one of these players, this is the first NCAA Tournament appearance. That includes head coach Micah Shrewsberry. It is paramount that they don’t let the moment get bigger than their goals.
This should be one of the most fun round of 64 matchups. Two teams that are their best basketball of the season right now, and two teams that will want to have some tempo on offense and shoot the ball. Should be a great late night matchup. Led by a big game from Seth Lundy, Penn State picks up their first NCAA Tournament win since 2001
Penn State 75, Texas A&M 72
I am not going to fake analysis about Texas A&M and what they do or don’t do well. I know next to nothing about them and haven’t watched a full game of theirs all season. But in that lies part of the reason that I like Penn State in this game. The early rounds allow teams a fresh start, away from the down-to-the-most minute detail that comes in conference play. At the same time, Penn State has been playing for its tournament life for the past few weeks. There’s no pressure like NCAA tournament pressure, but playing more relaxed and playing against an opponent that might allow a bit more breathing room to play to their strengths, I’ll take the Lions in a minor upset.
Penn State 72, Texas A&M 66
I’m picking PSU to lose in all of my brackets because they do better when I am pessimistic. If Lundy and Funk get hot, PSU could win going away. If the typical scoring drought is late in the game, this could be an uncomfortable one. My biggest concern with the Lions is tiredness—Pick showed flashes of that wearing on him over the weekend before finding another gear. The depth this year for the Lions is the best they’ve had in years, but does A&M play with a chip on its shoulder due to low seeding?
Could I be any more wishy-washy? Probably—I could pick overtime!
Texas A&M 67, Penn State 64
It’s a shame these two teams have to play in the first round because otherwise I think both would be popular picks to make a run to the Sweet 16. I’m going with Texas A&M here though for one main reason: offensive rebounding. I think the Aggies will take advantage of second chance opportunities, and for two teams that are very close, that will make the difference.
Texas A&M 75, Penn State 72
It just can never be easy. Booty Ball softens them up, and Lundy and the Funk shut them down.
Penn State 74, A&M 71
No doubt, PSU drew a tough one for their first round game. A&M boasts a dynamite backcourt of Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford. While they don’t have a Zach Edey-style big man who can abuse PSU down low, they still have a very solid post player in Julius Marble, who can be a handful. This game is going to come down to whether Jalen Pickett is able to be his usual triple-double threat and the threes falling courtesy of Andrew Funk, Seth Lundy, Cam Wynter, and Myles Dread. Look for this one to be tight throughout with countless lead changes as PSU wins it on yet another Wynter buzzer-beater to advance to a second round date against the Aggies’ bitter rivals, Texas.
Penn State 72, Texas A&M 69
Neither of these teams have been to the tournament in a long time, but, unlike A&M, only one player on Penn State’s team has ever been to the tournament. This will be a gift and a curse, as the Lions play jittery to start the game, but once they settle down, they’re not going to want to bounce in the first game.
Penn State 73, Texas A&M 70